Kabul: A Different View

 
 

As the American-led intervention enters its 15th year, Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, remains an enigma. For many Westerners, Kabul is a mercurial place, a political entity negatively associated with the longest war in American history. Though now the largest city in Central Asia — a teeming valley of nearly five million humans — few conceive of its geography or location: what it looks like to survey the city from its prominences, navigate its warren of muddy streets, visit its tombs and see the relics of past interventions. The truth of Afghanistan’s capital is obscured under a pall of violent images and stories of corruption. The city’s identity is lost in the dimming light of hope. This is not a misunderstanding of Kabul, for conflict and corruption and fading hope certainly exist; rather it is an incomplete picture, one that does a disservice to the city, its inhabitants, their place in history, and their future in a globalized world.

At the core of Kabul’s identity is a rich cultural landscape centered around places of deep historical significance. These places, and the collective memories they invoke, anchor Kabul to its past and provide a basis for understanding what the city is at present and what it might become in the future — a future which will not be determined by the West, but by Kabulis themselves.

Tyrell Mayfield has twice served as an advisor to senior Afghan officials and is currently writing a book about his experiences. He is an editor at The Strategy Bridge. You can follow him on Twitter at @tyrellmayfield.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the USAF, the DoD, or the U.S. Government.

Kabul: A Different View
Kabul is a sprawling city of some five million inhabitants. It fills the entire valley and climbs the mountains that ring it. In the distance, the Hindu Kush Mountains float like clouds above the smog which blankets the city on many days.
Image Credit: Tyrell Mayfield
Kabul: A Different View
The tomb of Nadir Shah sits atop Tepe Maranjan in Kabul. The hilltop has been in continuous use for over two thousand years as a place of reverence and worship. Below Nadir Shah’s tomb is the tomb of his great grandfather, Sultan Mohammad Khan Telai, and beyond that the site of a Buddhist stupa.
Image Credit: Tyrell Mayfield
Kabul: A Different View
In the Old City, traditional mud and straw homes climb the steep flanks of the Sher Darwaza Mountain in a rising tide of humanity, toil, and hope. This is the longest continuously inhabited portion of Kabul and remains largely inaccessible by vehicles.
Image Credit: Tyrell Mayfield
Kabul: A Different View
Atop Bibi Mahru, the central hilltop in Kabul, sits an Olympic sized pool built by the Russians, later used by the Taliban for executions and then renovated and painted in 2009. It remains empty and unused, surrounded by the sprawling city.
Image Credit: Tyrell Mayfield
Kabul: A Different View
A guard squats on the drop arm gate outside of the Kabul National Museum. The Museum is open to the public but remains cloistered behind walls, gates and wire. Much of the city is sequestered behind fences and paid guards.
Image Credit: Tyrell Mayfield
Kabul: A Different View
What was once the residence of King Amanullah Khan’s sister and then the Afghan institute of Archaeology has itself been reduced to a relic. Amanullah Khan was a bold reformer whose vision for Afghanistan fomented a revolution.
Image Credit: Tyrell Mayfield
Kabul: A Different View
Horses remain an important part of Kabul’s identity. Horse-drawn carts of fruit, donkeys loaded with scrap metal, and impromptu horse races are all part of Kabul’s daily life. In this photo, three riders and their mounts await a race on the grounds near the Afghan National Olympic Committee.
Image Credit: Tyrell Mayfield
Kabul: A Different View
The rhythmic toss of a long whip sends a flock of pigeons spooling into winter’s grey light over the Old City of Kabul, where mud and brick houses climb the mountainside. Many Kabulis keep pigeons. When I asked one why he simply replied “They keep pigeons because they bring them joy.”
Image Credit: Tyrell Mayfield
Kabul: A Different View
The Hazrata Mosque, restored by Afghan craftsmen of the Afghan Cultural Heritage Organization, rests in the heart of the Old City. The Mosque is an anchor in Kabul’s oldest neighborhood and serves the community by not only providing people a place to pray, but a place to meet, discuss politics, educate their children, and plan their futures.
Image Credit: Tyrell Mayfield
Kabul: A Different View
The Soviets clearly understood the psychology of geography. The Russian Officers Club sits perched high atop a hill south of the city and overlooked the old presidential palace and ministry of defense.
Image Credit: Tyrell Mayfield
Kabul: A Different View
The Shah-do shamshira Mosque, (“King with two swords”) sits in the heart of the city on the banks of the Kabul River. Men gather here to visit with each other and to feed the pigeons, while heroin addicts pass their days in the Mosque’s shadows along the river. In 2015 this mosque was the site of the brutal death of Farkhunda Malikzada, who was falsely accused of burning the Quran.
Image Credit: Tyrell Mayfield
Kabul: A Different View
Riders from the Panjshir and Afghan National Olympic buzkashi teams struggle for position. Buzkashi has long represented the chaotic nature of Afghanistan’s frontier in the minds of Westerners, and its practice, which requires cooperation and exalts individualism, remains deeply entrenched in the psyche of Afghans.
Image Credit: Tyrell Mayfield
Kabul: A Different View
A tomb keeper surveys the city from the roof of Timur Shah’s tomb. Seated on the banks of the Kabul River, this tomb rests in the Old City. Much of Kabul’s recent growth has happened on the slopes which surround the city, as informal settlements climb the hills outside of the reach of city water or sewer systems.
Image Credit: Tyrell Mayfield
Kabul: A Different View
TV Hill glows in the long light of Kabul’s Autumn. This hilltop hosts many of the city’s private and national broadcast antennas and remains a navigational aid for those traversing the city as well as a beacon to the outside world. Everyone has their own personal image of Kabul; when I close my eyes, this is the Kabul I see.
Image Credit: Tyrell Mayfield
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